Do customers find attractive store associates intimidating?

Discussion
Apr 27, 2016
Tom Ryan

A new university study finds that physically attractive salespeople can cause shoppers to feel self-conscious and that they may consequently avoid making purchases, especially when shopping for “embarrassing” items.

Through a series of studies, researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong generally found that consumers often react more favorably to physically attractive sales associates than to unattractive service providers as evidenced by their greater satisfaction with the service.

But an attractive sales person may deter purchases if the buyer gets apprehensive about making a good impression. In some cases, the apprehension is due to “chronic social anxiety or can be aroused by unrelated experiences that consumers have before being exposed to the service interactions.”

In other cases, the anxieties are activated by the type of product being sold, particularly “embarrassing” items such as feminine hygiene or weight-loss products for women, or condoms for men. The use of in-store coupons can also be embarrassing in certain situations.

The study found both opposite-sex and same-sex associate encounters can trigger such anxieties for different reasons. When working with an attractive salesperson of the opposite sex, the motivation may be sexual. With a same-sex attractive salesperson, shoppers may feel a sense of inadequacy through self-comparison.

When the associate is “of only average attractiveness,” individuals are likely to focus their attention on the product they are considering or service.

“Our research defies the conventional wisdom that physically attractive salespeople are more effective,” the authors wrote in the report. “While that may be the case in many contexts, there are certain settings in which they intimidate shoppers and may ultimately decrease sales.”

Time Magazine likewise pointed to a 2009 study from researchers at the University of South Australia that found that, regardless of whether the product was related to appearance (for example, a mobile phone vs. mascara), if the female customer perceived the staff member to be better looking than she, a purchase of the product was less likely.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:
What lessons, if any, should retailers take from the study about hiring based on appearance? Do retailers hire too much based on looks?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Not hiring someone based upon their appearance and attractiveness would definitely be discrimination. So what are the retailers supposed to do with this information?"
"What? Retailers can’t or shouldn’t do anything with this information. I hope no one is hiring on looks but on ability to do the job."
"It’s not about physical appearance, but about the employee’s enthusiasm, friendliness and competence in his or her role."

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12 Comments on "Do customers find attractive store associates intimidating?"


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Chris Petersen, PhD.
Guest
4 years 5 months ago

Is it possible to have reverse discrimination against the “beautiful”?

Last time I checked, the U.S. laws are very specific about not discriminating on the basis of race, gender, sex, age … physical appearance. Not hiring someone based upon their appearance and attractiveness would definitely be discrimination.

So what are the retailers supposed to do with this information? I don’t think you can tell someone to dress “drab or ugly” to tone down their attractiveness. A consistent “uniform” may work in some stores, but uniforms are definitely not attractive to Millennials who comprise most of the new hires.

This is one of those “uummms” … slightly interesting, but there are way more important issues in retail right now!

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
4 years 5 months ago

I actually have not seen this consistently in my 40 years in retail. There may be inherent prejudice one way or another. However, adverse effects on sales have not been shown to exist across the board. I can say that staff whose appearance that falls way outside the local norm may indeed be intimidating. Yet again, I believe today there is far more acceptance for those who look prettier, more tattooed/pierced or just different across all formats of retail globally. I think that’s a great thing, and less of a reason to worry about appearance when hiring.

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
4 years 5 months ago

They should ignore the study and hire friendly, competent, honest salespeople.

Robert DiPietro
Guest
4 years 5 months ago

What? Retailers can’t or shouldn’t do anything with this information. I hope no one is hiring on looks but on ability to do the job.

Ross Ely
Guest
4 years 5 months ago

It’s not about physical appearance, but about the employee’s enthusiasm, friendliness and competence in his or her role. An employee who cares about what he or she is doing will make shoppers feel comfortable and relaxed about their buying decision. Such an employee will also be more likely to care about his or her appearance and to look as professional as possible. Retailers should hire not purely based on appearance but with an eye towards how the employee presents himself or herself, looking for a professional demeanor which will make shoppers feel comfortable.

Tom Redd
Guest
4 years 5 months ago

None. You hire the best people — and who cares what they look like? Looks like the Asian/Pacific countries have some hang up with hip looking people (like me, vs. partially hip, like Al McClain or Rick Moss). Get the right person for the right job and great service for shoppers and done.

It is so tough looking hip …

David Livingston
Guest
4 years 5 months ago
Depends on the retailer. The general attractiveness of Walmart employees is nowhere near the level you see at Costco. Appearance and attractiveness plays a huge part in wages as well. I know of one retailer where the average associate earns about $30 to $35 per hour. On a ten scale they are all a 9.5. An investment in dental work, fitness, dress and other cosmetic changes can significantly improve a person’s income potential much more than education and certifications. I’ve seen a strong correlation between sales per square foot or sales per unit and the attractiveness of retail employees. When we go to industry trade shows, there is a reason why vendors will have promotional models standing around their booths. These models might know zero about their product. I feel sorry for the vendor directly across from the models because they lost all gravitational pull towards their booth. I was in Puerto Rico working one time about 15 years ago and could not help notice how attractive the people were working in Walmart. This is… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest
4 years 5 months ago

Good lord, isn’t there ANYTHING anymore that isn’t being studied to death? People should be hired based on (1) their knowledge of the goods being sold, and (2) their ability to communicate effectively with the different types of customers likely to be encountered. Beyond that, it’s hard to give specific guidelines.

HY Louis
Guest
4 years 5 months ago

The SIZZLE sells the steak. Our first impression of someone is their looks and attractiveness. It takes work on both parties to get past that. Good looking people get to be on TV. The less attractive with talent get to be on the radio. I’ve noticed Americans have put much less emphasis on looks. Particularly in air travel. Asia based airlines its all about good looks. Mainland Americans and Canadians (or any country with Queen Elizabeth on the money) seem much more accepting of less attractive people in sales and service positions. In Machismo Latin America and in Asia, the ordinary person, particularly females, have more challenges.

Elizabeth Meaney
Guest
4 years 5 months ago

Obviously certain stores are selling “image” or “lifestyle” through their goods (anyone else remember the shirtless Abercrombie dudes at American shopping malls in the early ’00s? Are they still there?).

As a woman, I tend to notice the makeup and clothes of the women who do my hair and assist me in clothing stores. Do I really want fashion advice from someone whose personal style I don’t like? No, of course not.

However, outside of these “aspirational” product categories that relate directly to physical appearance themselves, let’s train employees to be discreet and professional. No need to comment on what a customer is buying at a pharmacy/grocery store, there are other ways to be friendly.

Kai Clarke
Guest
4 years 5 months ago

We have to realize that this is a study done in China, not in the USA. Social morays and perceptions are dramatically different in the USA where personal care items are routinely seen on TV, and physical attributes are often discussed on prime time television. This is not the case in China, where this is not done, nor are the same items available or seen on any media. This makes these findings skeptical at best, and perhaps only applicable for Chinese retailers….

Alan Cooper
Guest
Alan Cooper
4 years 4 months ago

The science of beauty and the laws of attraction tend to be consistent over time. So do the principles of effective sales people. Opinions are formed after the initial contact. Dressing neat versus sloppy figures into the equation. Enthusiasm, personality, ability to execute a sales process can and are achieved by many different body types, all sizes and shapes, all ages.

There are some positions, though, that attractiveness has to be a hiring factor – the make-up counter at Macy’s for example.

Someone will low self-esteem will have a hard time shopping at many stores and venues; this trait and its ramifications carry over beyond retail and we’ll leave that topic to the psychologists.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Not hiring someone based upon their appearance and attractiveness would definitely be discrimination. So what are the retailers supposed to do with this information?"
"What? Retailers can’t or shouldn’t do anything with this information. I hope no one is hiring on looks but on ability to do the job."
"It’s not about physical appearance, but about the employee’s enthusiasm, friendliness and competence in his or her role."

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